Teen Love Meets the Internet
Is social media connection displacing true communication?
Posted May 22, 2013
In her recent article in the New York Times, Sherry Turkle suggests that social media connection is displacing true communication, and she see this as a great loss. Text messaging, Facebooking and emailing work to elbow aside usual human communications, which she describes as messy and emotionally demanding but rich and potentially rewarding. She asks why we humans are attracted to these media-driven forms of connection. She gives a provisional answer: a so-called Goldilocks effect.
Because human relations are intense, confusing, demanding and ambiguous, humans may prefer connections wherein a certain polite distance is retained. Not too hot and not too cold, but just right, per the Goldilocks fairy tale. Not too close, not to far, just right.
Why might such contrived connection as opposed to a more real communication be so attractive to us? The answer seems clear. In actual conversation, we face each other and talk. If tension exists between the humans in question, conflict can emerge. Let me suggest an example: a boy and girl who like each other are sitting at a lunch table at school. They may want to date but are tongue-tied, in anguish. Wouldn’t it be easier to communicate via text messaging?
In my work as a child and adolescent psychiatrist and psychotherapist, I have met young patients who describe such awkward, messy and painful interactions. I have found that when the social media enters the mix, it may seems to simplify, matters, quell the teen angst in a way that seems to relieve the teen of embarrassment. But in fact, the simplicity, easiness and coolness offered proves a mirage, a fantasy. The mirage evaporates, the fantasy turns to nightmare. Let me offer some highly disguised, composite case material to make my points.
Case #1: Samantha
At age 15, Samantha was in a crisis when I first met her. Her father had lost his job, the family house had gone into foreclosure, and the family had moved to an apartment far from the community where they had long lived. Her father grew depressed and emotionally distant. Only the mother worked. So Samantha was loosely supervised.
When Samantha entered high school in the fall, she had no friends and little parental support. Physically attractive, she caught the eye of an upper classman who asked in the cafeteria one day for her cell phone number. Naturally she consented. In text messages he soon was proclaiming that he found her gorgeous and sexy. She encouraged him. Next, he proclaimed that his love ran so deep that she simply had to give her body to him. She demurred, again via text. At the very least then, he suggested that she share the particulars of her body with him via the Internet. Bowled over and desperate, the girl stood one evening before a mirror and slowly undressed. Admiring herself, her reached for her smart phone. It was so easy to take snap shots, to hit the send button. Her pictures flew to the boy through cyberspace.
Quickly the boy went viral with the photos. They caught the eye of scores of students. Tarred with the reputation of a prick-teaser, a slut among the girls, many boys also sided against her. But one boy trumpeted himself as her savior on line and in the school halls. She fell under his thrall. With little ado he wooed her, copulated with her, and impregnated her. Too late did the pics fall into the hands of the school authorities.
She grew suicidal and was referred to me for evaluation. I soon learned he had already undergone the ordeal of an abortion.
Case #2: Miranda
Tall, blond, well dressed, and coquettish, this 14-year old girl spoke like a hurt child in her therapy about how her divorced parents had little time for her and seemed much more loyal to their new spouses than to her. She had moved between her parents’ two homes for reasons related to their shifting needs. At age 13 her father extruded her from her father’s house after conflicts with her stepmother and so she went to live with her mother and stepfather when she she first became interested in boys.
Dressing right, using good beauty products, having her hair done properly became an obsession to her. She learned to use Facebook to offer piquant pictures of herself and won a deluge of admirers. At least someone loved her. By 14, she’d already had three sexual flings. Her new beau was wild over her, possessive, and jealous of all competitors.
This boy proclaimed his love for her from the rooftops, or more precisely on his Facebook page. But Miranda could not resist using Facebook to flirt with other boys and tease her beau in the quasi-public forum that Facebook is. He responded by haranguing her for her Internet flirtations and proclaiming in stilted prose and florid poetry his adoration for the girl of his dreams. This melodrama played out in front of all their growing list of Facebook Friends.
One evening, he, she and a few friends were drinking at a party when Miranda leaned over and planted a kiss on another boy’s lips. Her boyfriend cursed her and slapped her senseless. Their friends separated them and took Miranda home.
Mortified, her mother forbade all contact with the boy. Yet the social media is like a house with myriad secret entrances and escape hatches. Despite the mother’s efforts, the lovers soon were communicating again. She had entered into the male-female cycle of abuse, if using Facebook and other social media as the go-betweens. Three times cycle went around before Miranda saw the depths of her trouble and broke off with him.
At first glance, Sherry Turkle’s Goldilocks effect is attractive. The social media offer distance, coolness, even an audience. Emotions are pinioned on a screen. Yet in these two cases, the opposite came true. The social media ran riot with the teen’s emotions. Tender passions were cast aside. Public humiliation and wrenching heartbreak gained center stage. All too quickly the intense human relations blew up in the teen’s face.
Human emotions will always be messy, confusing and painful, whether we like it or not. If we rely on the social media as a way of simplifying matters we may only make things worse, for the private nature of boy-girl relations become public, and morphs into a kind of cartoon version of love.